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OnWords: 'Slippery Slope'


A few terms we have to protect from the unstable landscape of language, and I nominate “slippery slope” as one of them.

Pundits, news analysts, and alarmists of all stripes have stopped merely using slippery slope arguments and have taken to using the term itself in favor of their point of view, somehow forgetting that a slippery slope is a logical fallacy.

The slippery slope argument goes something like this: if we allow men to marry other men, then the next thing you know, people will want to start marrying their cars and couches—and then their goats! By gum, we’ll have goat marriage right here in the good ol’ US of A!

Even self-identified writers like me are prone to this kind of reasoning, reacting against any restriction on speech as censorship leading to the inevitable terrors of tyranny and thought-policing and all sorts of other violations of the sacred value of freedom of speech.

The problem with this is that an argument for something has to be assessed on its merits: a step in one direction does not necessarily mean that we’ll go all the way.

The slippery slope, then, is not a surface on which to build your rhetorical house, and when we lose its place on the map of bad logic, navigating our way to sound reasoning becomes all that more hard.

Used well, the term “slippery slope” calls out those sending public discourse into rhetorical chaos.